Op-Ed: Why we must say goodbye to fossil fuels now

Investing in green funds is a beginning, but no more than that. Stopping the progress of climate change means breaking ties with all aspects of the fossil-fuel sector — immediately
Tina Weishaus

Recently there has been much excitement about green investments. Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to make New Jersey a leader in offshore wind is probably the most publicized of the state’s green initiatives. The New Jersey State Investment Council, which advises and oversees the New Jersey State Pension Fund, has also started to invest in green funds. These climate-friendly investments are seen as addressing the climate crisis. So, people ask, why are activists still demanding an end to fossil fuels? Aren’t green investments enough? The short answer is “No!”

It cannot be said often enough that burning fossil fuels, which produces heat-trapping greenhouse gases, is the main driver of global warming. There is incontrovertible scientific agreement on this. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report (October 2018) called for immediate actions to sharply reduce fossil-fuel use to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And in a report published in May of this year, the International Energy Agency put out an urgent call for a transformational change in our energy system and “a rapid shift away from fossil fuels,” starting immediately.

The world today is burning up as temperatures reach record highs in the triple digits. The Arctic, which we normally think of as frozen, is warming faster than any other place on the planet. We have already used up more than 1 degree Celsius out of our 1.5 degrees Celsius carbon budget. So we cannot lose focus on the simple truth that the continued burning of fossil fuels is driving these temperature increases. Above 1.5 degrees Celsius we are facing climate tipping points that may be irreversible.

New technologies such as solar, wind, electric vehicles, green hydrogen and long-term energy storage are central to replacing existing fossil-fuel use. The fact that their development has happened at a much faster rate than predicted gives us great hope for our future. Renewables are now some of the cheapest sources of energy available throughout the world. And we applaud New Jersey’s investments in them and hope to see more.

Green alone is not enough

However, green technologies will not solve the climate crisis alone. Not if we continue to invest in, finance and insure fossil-fuel projects. Not if we continue to build new fossil-fuel infrastructure. Not if we continue to subsidize the fossil-fuel industry with billions of tax dollars. Not if we allow the fossil-fuel industry to go under-regulated and allow it to create additional supply that it will surely want to burn.

The New Jersey State Pension Fund at present has $300 million approved for investment in climate-friendly funds. But it also has an estimated $4 billion invested in publicly traded fossil-fuel companies and supporting industries. We do not know how much is invested through private-equity funds but we expect that it is comparable. And the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is in the process of considering at least 10 new fracked gas projects and one LNG (liquified natural gas) terminal in Gibbstown. If approved, these pipelines, compressors, power plants and LNG terminal will lock in fossil-fuel use for decades to come or become expensive stranded assets.

On Wednesday, July 21, the DivestNJ Coalition testified in the public comment period at the State Investment Council as it has been doing since September 2018. After the council favorably reviewed the $200 million climate-friendly pension investment that we agree with, our coalition again called on the fiduciaries of the New Jersey State Pension Fund to divest from fossil fuels. This is in line with decisions to divest their public-pension funds already announced by New York state, New York City, Rhode Island, Maine and the endowment of Rutgers University. These divestment decisions have the backing of BlackRock, the largest asset management company in the world, which sees fossil-fuel divestment as a prudent fiduciary decision.

At the same time that DivestNJ was calling for fossil-fuel divestment from the New Jersey State Pension Fund, a group of more than 60 organizations led by Empower NJ, Blue Wave-NJ, New Jersey Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, Environment New Jersey, Clean Water Action-NJ, Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Don’t Gas the Meadowlands — all concerned about the lack of progress in New Jersey to aggressively address the climate crisis — held a press conference announcing the filing of a petition for rule-making to the DEP. The petition calls on the DEP to meet its lawful obligations to establish a more aggressive climate action plan to reduce greenhouse gases. This includes the blocking of all new fossil-fuel infrastructure until we have rules, regulations and a plan for reductions in place to properly assess their impact.

Empower NJ has been engaged in the fight to stop the construction of new fossil-fuel infrastructure throughout New Jersey. Most of the state’s fossil-fuel infrastructure is already located in low-wealth communities of color who are dealing with the worst health impacts of greenhouse gases and particulate matter. Empower NJ puts it elegantly, “if you are in a hole, stop digging.” And New Jersey, our country and the world are certainly in a giant gaping hole ready to swallow us up.

Clean renewable energy is our best solution to overcoming the existential threat that climate change poses to humanity. However, it cannot be achieved without simultaneously retiring and converting old fossil-fuel infrastructure into clean renewable alternatives. We must end the government subsidies, investments, financing, insurance and approvals that support new fossil-fuel development. New Jerseyans can participate in local and statewide activities to say goodbye to fossil fuels by working with Empower NJ and the DivestNJ Coalition. If we are to survive, we must “stop digging” and we must stop now!

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